The North East
of England Branch
I contacted Joan in advance to see if anyone was meeting up beforehand as, although the invitation contained detailed instructions, I was hesitant to turn up at the gates of Buckingham Palace all alone, so I was able to join with overseas members for tea (cup of!) at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, which was in itself interesting. Some of the American and Canadian folk had come across just for a couple of nights; I think their jet-lag had jet-lag! From there we walked the short distance to the Palace, presented our name card and passports for identification and entered the great gates to walk around to the main doors and up a quite magnificent staircase to leave our coats in a temporary cloak-room ('Look!' hissed someone, 'There're thrones there and they're using it for coats!'), then we were guiding into the Picture Gallery where the reception was held, and offered a glass of wine.
We were ushered into another room (the Blue Drawing Room!), where the Toronto rep, Terry Sleightholme, and I found ourselves in a really interesting conversation with a lady-in-waiting, until I remarked that it was becoming very crowded, to which she replied, 'Yes, you've all been herded in here to go through to shake hands with the Queen.' This was a shock. We had all assumed that it would be like the garden parties, and that a glimpse of the Queen and Duke across a crowded room would be all that would happen. Not so. We found ourselves edged towards a door, our drink removed from us with a 'Sorry!' then our name card surrendered so that we were each announced as we approached the queen.
Let loose to return to the Picture Gallery, which was relatively quiet then, I headed over to one of the displays of Dickens-related material from the Royal archives; apparently whenever there is a 'themed' reception, such displays of written and pictorial material are pulled together. I fell into conversation with the archivist, who came originally from Durham (near my Durham church, no less!) and she talked with great enthusiasm about her work and the material on display, which included a volume of Queen Victoria's journal in which she wrote about reading Oliver Twist. Actually, talking with people like her, and the lady-in-waiting was something special and immensely interesting.
As the evening went on - a couple of hours or so - I had a wonderful time catching up with Dickensians I hadn't seen for ages and ages, and just appreciating where we were. Throughout, the Palace staff were absolutely brilliant in the way that they made you feel completely relaxed, and to be helped feel so at home in such bizarre surroundings as Buckingham Palace says a lot about their quiet skill. And the canapés were lovely! A fun thing was star spotting. With so many stars of stage and screen around, it was fascinating noticing just who was there, and who was quiet and who massively extrovert!
Leaving the reception with Maggie de Vos of the Eastbourne branch, I enjoyed the luxury of walking down the magnificent -and now uncrowded - staircase; I suggested that it was the kind of staircase that really needed you to sweep down in a long, elegant dress and she agreed, adding "or be Ginger Rogers!" Begging a lift to the nearest tube station in a taxi hired by more provident Dickensians, we were amused at the interest we raised among the sightseers still around the gates; could they be wondering if we were anyone famous? Well, no, we weren't. Not famous, perhaps, but very, very happy. A special few hours, which I lived to the utmost!
Branch member Rita Ward sends this report
I have just arrived home from the matinee at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, of 'Dickens' Women' performed by Miriam Margolyes. They were two wonderful hours. How on earth can I unpack and unpick the experience and try and do justice to the wonderful voices and physical comedy, the social comedy and tragedy, the uninhibited presentation of our deepest human feelings - of love, obsession, self interest, self delusion and self knowledge?
To set the scene: the stage set comprised a framed portrait of CD, a throne, a Victorian red plush chair, a plain wooden chair and a copy of the famous reading desk. Among the characters represented were Sarah Gamp, Mrs Pipchin (and Paul Dombey), Mrs Skewton, Mrs Lirriper (and the willing Sophie), Rosa Dartle (the 30 year old spinster), Miss Wade, Miss Havisham, Flora Finching, Miss Mowcher, Mrs Jarley (and the Wax Works), Miss Flite, Mrs Micawber, and the courtship of Mr Bumble and Mrs Corney (coals and candles).
Alongside these examples of girlhood (the importance of being little and seventeen), examples of spinsterhood, the married state, the lone woman and the sexually unattractive old woman who isn't prepared to give up gracefully on life. There was also a narrative of the life of Dickens, giving key experiences (debt and being excluded from parental love and care) and important women in his life. These important elements of Dickens's life included his troubled relationship with his mother (who was so keen to send him back to earning money at the blacking factory, which clashed with CD'S early sense of what his life should be), but also his relationship with his grandmother and her stories of life in the big house.
Miriam Margolyes also told of Dickens's early love of Maria Beadnell and his later self delusion in trying to recapture those feelings when he met her again in later life (sadly changed), and how Dickens used this experience to create the character Flora Finching. Then there was, of course, the Ellen Ternan episode and the separation from Catherine Dickens.
Anyone who came to this performance with a preconceived cosy, rosy view of Dickens came away with plenty of evidence for the man as a cruel manipulator whose great love affair was with his public. It really was two hours of love and hate and a roller coaster of emotions. At the end MM sent us out from the performance urging us to go back to the texts and read the books! A fantastic night!